Works of Geoffrey Chaucer – What did Geoffrey Chaucer do?

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What did Geoffrey Chaucer do? Information about the works, poems, books and influence of Geoffrey Chaucer.

In any examination and evaluation of Chaucer’s work it essential to recognize his debt to the French and Italian literary traditions. First and foremost a narrative poet, Chaucer owed much to the courtly idealistic romances and the bourgeois-realistic fabliaux that were the dominant narrative genres in medieval French literature. (Romances were stories, either in verse or prose, about idealized love and chivalry; fabliaux were brief, frequently comic tales, written in verse and of a coarse and often ribald nature.)

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A portrait from the Welsh Portrait Collection at the National Library of Wales. Depicted person: Geoffrey Chaucer – 14th century English poet and author

A portrait from the Welsh Portrait Collection at the National Library of Wales. Depicted person: Geoffrey Chaucer – 14th century English poet and author (Source : wikipedia.org)

Chaucer took his earliest narrative inspiration from the allegorical Romance of the Rose, begun about 1230 by Guillaume de Lorris and completed about 1280 by Jean de Meung. Guillaume detached the concerns of 12th century chivalric romance from the context of adventure. Using personified abstractions, he presented the lover’s quest for his mistress’ love (the rose) within the dream world of a walled, beautiful garden. Jean de Meun metamorphosed this golden world of love into a crowded setting, giving a sprawling, lively consideration of the central moral and philosophical problems of his day. Chaucer knew the Romance of the Rose intimately, translated it into English, and was deeply influenced by its unique and fascinating combination of idealized landscape, psychological allegory, philosophical concerns, and wide-ranging social commentary.

The Italian influence on Chaucer extends from ancient Rome to his own time. Ovid, the witty and worldly Roman love poet, provided him with numerous classical and mythological exempla of love’s foibles. Chaucer read Roethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, an artful 6th century philosophical dialogue that examines the roles played by destiny and free will in the attainment of human happiness. He also borrowed the sources for some of his major works, notably Troilus and Criseyde, from the great 14th century Italian writer Giovanni Roccaccio.

Portrait of Chaucer (16th century). The arms are: Per pale argent and gules, a bend counterchanged

Portrait of Chaucer (16th century). The arms are: Per pale argent and gules, a bend counterchanged (Source : wikipeida.org)

However, indebted as Chaucer was to the works of others, he remained an entirely individual poet. Although he used literary sources and conventions, he gradually developed his own highly personal style and techniques. In his earlier works, he stressed theme rather than character delineation. In the course of the 1380’s, however, he linked the significance of his poetry more closely to incisive character portrayal and the depiction of the individual psyche. Even in his most highly original works, however, it can be said that Chaucer perfected rather than abandoned medieval literary tradition.

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Chaucer’s concern with the narrator figure is perhaps the most unique characteristic of his poetry. His narrators, though, never represent Chaucer, the actual historical man, and in that respect he is one of the least intrusive of poets. His career can in a sense be summed up as that of a private man in search of a public voice. He handles his narrators with great inventiveness, imbuing them with life and strength, and achieves a variety of illuminating and often ironic effects.

“The Book, of the Duchess.” Chaucer’s earliest poetry probably consisted of lyrics, secular and religious, in the French courtly manner. His first narrative poem, The Book of the Duchess, was inspired by the death of Rlanche, first wife of John of Gaunt, in September 1369, and was probably written shortly after that date. At the beginning of the poem the narrator complains of his”sorwful ymagynacioun” that isolates him from the vitality of nature and fills him with despair and bleak fantasies. The cause and central image of his deviation from the normal rhythms of life is sleeplessness, a “sickness” that has affected the narrator for eight years. Finally, after reading an old retelling of the tragic love story of Ceys and Alcione (Ceyx and Halcyone from Ovid’s Metamorphosis), he falls asleep.

In the radiant, fertile world of a dream, he meets a man in black, who is mourning for his beloved, “good, fair White” (French “Rlanche”). A conversation then ensues in which the narrator’s questions force (or permit) the grieving lover to recount, and therefore reexperience, the virtues of his lady and the story of his wooing. Finally the man in black declares that his beloved is dead. The narrator responds “Is that your loss? Ry God, it is routhe [a pity],” and the poem ends with the dreamer awakening, resolved to set down his dream in rhyme.

Beginning of The Knight's Tale—the first tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales—from the Ellesmere Manuscript, early 15th century

Beginning of The Knight’s Tale—the first tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—from the Ellesmere Manuscript, early 15th century (Source : wikipedia.org)

Throughout the work, Chaucer reveals his purposes allusively. The narrator is rescued from his “sickness” through his exposure to an old work of art (the legend), gains insight through his subsequent dream, and is finally moved to the creation of a new work of literary art. This poem moves less from grief to happiness than from personal isolation and artistic sterility to productive fulfillment. Unhappiness or grief is placed in its proper perspective in order that it may become a subject to liberate the artist’s (narrator’s) stifled creative faculties.

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The Book of the Duchess is neither overly solemn nor philosophical. Its treatment of the ideal landscape of the courtly dream vision is lively, affectionate, and inventive. Chaucer’s juxtaposition of vivid, contrasting images in the poem (for example, the green forest and the black-garbed man) is very effective. All in all, it is a successful and original first major work.

“The House of Fame.”

Chaucer’s next important work was The House of Fame (written in three books between 1374 and 1385). The narrator, or poet, dreams that he is in a temple of Venus, the walls of which are decorated with the story of Virgil’s AeneicL. He summarizes the Aeneid, stressing the tragic love of Queen Dido for Aeneas (an episode that Chaucer expanded by borrowings from Ovid’s Heroides). When the dreamer leaves the temple, he finds himself in a desert from which he is rescued by a friendly but loquacious golden eagle.

In Book 2, the eagle carries the frightened narrator to the heavens. In the course of his conversation with the eagle, the poet reveals that he spends all of his spare time reading and is therefore unaware of what is actually going on in the world. He is especially ignorant of the affairs and intrigues of love. The eagle tells the narrator that he will now have the opportunity to hear “tidings” of “love’s folk” as a compensation for having served Venus and Cupid long and unrewarded and that he is being transported to Fame’s dwelling to learn about life at firsthand.

Title page of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, c. 1400

Title page of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, c. 1400 (Source : wikipedia.org)

In Book 3, the narrator reaches the temple of the goddess Fame. There he finds that the goddess arbitrarily grants or refuses men’s pleas for fame, either good or evil, or for obscurity. He then goes to the House of Tidings, which is full of reports, both true and false. As he looks for tidings of love, he sees a “man of great authority.” Here the poem inexplicably breaks off. Perhaps the end of the work is lost; perhaps Chaucer was unable to find a statement worthy of utterance by the “man of great authority.”

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Throughout the poem the narrator’s perplexity, skepticism, and detachment in the face of the rich insights, images, and doctrines offered to him in his dream seem to be a wryly comic comment on the confusion of the poet as he attempts to reduce to order the chaos of experience and imagination. As in The Book of the Duchess, Chaucer treats the relationship among books, dreams, and waking, but the component parts cohere far less in The House of Fame than in the earlier work. The chief irony of The House of Fame lies in its presentation of fame and love, which, instead of enlightening the dreamer, puzzle and even repel him. Since neither fame nor love fare well in Chaucer’s delineation of them, the dreamer’s skepticism in the face of his own vision is at once an unsatisfying and yet entirely justified reaction. The House of Fame delights by its exuberance and variety but puzzles by the obscurity of its larger design and meaning. It also provides evidence of Chaucer’s wide reading, notably Dante’s Divine Comedy, which probably furnished the prototype for Chaucer’s eagle.

“The Parliament of Fowls” and Other Works.

In The Parliament of Fowls (early 1380’s?), Chaucer abandoned the traditional octosyllabic couplet of French courtly origin, which he had used earlier, for a 7-line stanza of his own invention. Again, as in The Book of the Duchess and The House of Fame, Chaucer links books and dreams, this time exploring the nature as well as the social ramifications of love. After reading a philosophical tract by Cicero, the narrator dreams that he is before a beautiful, walled garden over whose gate are two conflicting inscriptions. One beckons the reader to bliss and the other warns him of misery within. The dreamer enters and sees a temple full of famous, suffering lovers. Within the garden he also sees the goddess Nature surrounded by birds who, since it is Valentine’s day, have come to choose their mates. Three aristocratic eagles vie for a beautiful female eagle. The other birds who are watching the proceedings offer a running commentary that ranges from sentimental praise to the sharp, realistic criticism of the lower classes of fowls, who must await the female eagle’s decision before choosing their own mates. When the female eagle declares that she needs another year to make up her mind, Nature acquiesces in the delay, but meanwhile allows the lesser birds to make their matches. They then sing a hymn of praise to summer, the season of love, and the dreamer awakes.

In this poem the waking crisis or “sickness” that is purged by the dream-vision is the narrator’s bewilderment and uneasiness at the power of love. The ambiguous quality of love is hinted at in the double inscription on the garden gate. However, the dreamer learns that the terrors of love are confined to a small corner of its garden (the temple). On the whole, love is a part of nature and society (the parliament of birds), in which, to be sure, it raises problems, but ones that can be handled.

Portrait of Chaucer from a 1412 manuscript by Thomas Hoccleve, who may have met Chaucer

Portrait of Chaucer from a 1412 manuscript by Thomas Hoccleve, who may have met Chaucer (Source : wikipedia.org)

As with the emotion of grief in The Book of the Duchess, Chaucer here is not so much explicating love as commenting on its ability to confer a liberating influence on the hitherto inhibited poetic imagination. The high good humor in which the parliament of the birds is described and the realistic voices of the lower fowl, which offer an amusing commentary on society, are special triumphs of Chaucer’s sympathetic art.

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In the 1380’s Chaucer worked on several expanded narrative poems, returning to the conventional rhythms and meters of French courtly origin, and began the uncompleted epic Anelida and Arcite. At this time he also remade Boccaccio’s Latin epic, the Teseide, into a shorter work that became the Knight’s Tale of the Canterbury Tales. His prose writings in the early 1380’s include his translation of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, which is thought to have been done shortly before Troilus ana Criseyde since its influence on that poem is quite clear.

“Troilus and Criseyde.”

This magnificent love story was Chaucer’s greatest artistic achievement in the field of extended narrative. Chaucer’s work was an adaptation of Boccaccio’s Filostrato, which itself was an expansion of the original Troilus and Cressida episode in Benoit de Sainte-Maure’s 12th century poem Roman de Troie. In reworking Boccaccio’s version, Chaucer contributed memorable characterizations, especially the comic character Pandarus and the sensitive, finely drawn narrator, and constructed a brilliant and provocative complex of fate, fortune, and personal weakness that ultimately dooms the lovers’ search for happiness.

Troilus and Criseyde is composed in five books in the 7-line stanza or “rhyme royal” used in The Parliament of Fowls. Criseyde is the daughter of Calchas, a Trojan soothsayer who flees to the Greeks when he realizes through his gift of foresight that Troy is doomed. Left behind by her father, she finds herself in an awkward and delicate position and is reluctant to accept the attentions of the valiant Trojan warrior-prince Troilus, who is deeply in love with her. Gradually, through the efforts of Pandarus, her uncle and Troilus’ friend, she is persuaded to accept Troilus as her lover, and for three years they share a secret but profound felicity.

Calchas, however, convinces the Greeks to exchange an important Trojan captive for his daughter. Since neither Criseyde nor Troilus are prepared to expose their love by fleeing together, she goes to the Greeks but promises to return to Troilus in 10 days. However, finding it impossible to keep the promise, she convinces herself that a reunion with her beloved is not to be and gradually succumbs to the ardent suit of Diomede, a Greek. The faithful Troilus becomes deeply distraught when he learns of Criseyde’s infidelity. Finally he dies in battle and his soul rises to the heavens, whence it can look down on earth and smile at the follies of man. The poem ends with the narrator’s advice to young people to seek the eternal love of Christ, rather than to emulate Troilus and Criseyde.

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In this work, Chaucer brilliantly and sympathetically explored the enormous complexity of a love relationship. Both as a sensitive human being and as an accomplished poet he was acutely aware of the problems encountered in presenting such a relationship credibly and fully. Ultimately, Troilus and Criseyde is less about love than about creating a love story—that is, about the relationship between art and experience. Both experience and art produce any great story, and the presence in Troilus and Criseyde of two artists—the intrusive Chaucerian narrator, and Pandarus, who creates the love affairs in a special sense—reveals Chaucer’s great sensitivity to the counteraction of the two components.

Balade to Rosemounde, 1477 print

Balade to Rosemounde, 1477 print (Source : wikipedia.org)

The real protagonist of the work is Troilus— noble, earnest, self-doubting—quick to find in events the hand of irresistible powers, such as Love and Fortune, which rob him of his freedom of action. However, it has always been Criseyde who has most fascinated readers. She seems the quintessential woman—human, full of charm and ambiguous motives—at once appealing and pathetic, afraid of love at first, yet capable of great though impermanent devotion to Troilus.

The narrator does not condemn Criseyde outright for her infidelity to Troilus; she is, he says, “slydynge of corage” rather than opportunistic or wicked. Chaucer surely intended that she be seen as an example of the ambiguity of all experience. Her actions should not be sorted into a consistent, uniquely motivated pattern of behavior; rather, her portrait illustrates at once the triumph and the defeat of the artist in his attempt to comprehend and portray life and art.

“The Legend of Good Women.”

Shortly after completing Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer began writing The Legend of Good Women. This work represented his first experiment with a collection of stories within a narrative framework. In a dream-vision prologue, the god of love accuses the poet of having slandered women in works such as Troilus and Criseyde. He commands the poet to undertake a series of “legends” (a word applied in Chaucer’s day to pious tales) about “love’s martyrs,” faithful women who had suffered for their love. (The prologue offers yet another example of Chaucer’s fascination with the- relationship among books, dreams, and actual experiences; Chaucer later revised the prologue, leaving two versions that offer interesting comparisons in their artistic and thematic differences.) Chaucer planned to write 20 legends, but abandoned the work part way through the ninth tale.

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“Canterbury Tales.”

About 1387 Chaucer began working on the Canterbury Tales. Its composition involved the inclusion of tales which he had already written and the creation of new ones. He also worked out an ingenious narrative framework within which to present his stories— a pilgrimage originating in London, undertaken by some 30 people who are going to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. En route to and from Canterbury they amuse themselves by telling stories of all types.

Engraving of Chaucer from Speght's edition.

Engraving of Chaucer from Speght’s edition. (Source : wikipedia.org)

The work, written for the most part in rhymed couplets, opens with an idealized description of the earth’s joyful reawakening in spring. The narrator then discusses each of the pilgrims in a General Prologue, in which all of Chaucer’s descriptive skills, as well as his powers of observation, his piercing irony, his sense of humor, and his ability to adapt and transform his source materials are brilliantly revealed. Some of the characters, such as the Prioress and the Wife of Bath, have their human weaknesses thoroughly but not viciously exposed. Through his portraits of other characters, including the Reeve, the Man of Law, the Physician, the Pardoner, the Summoner, and the Friar, Chaucer shows the relationship between the personal vices of the individual and the corruption that exists in the church and in other social institutions.

Finally, there are a few ideal figures—the humble Parson, the worthy Knight, and the unworldly Clerk of Oxford. According to the rules laid down by Harry Bailly, the host of the tavern outside London where the travelers are staying, each pilgrim must tell two tales on the way to the shrine and two tales on the way back. The teller of the best tale (as judged by the host, who will accompany the assemblage to Canterbury) is to receive a free dinner.

Of the 120 tales provided for in this scheme, Chaucer wrote only all or part of 24. Among the outstanding tales are the ribald fabliaux of the Miller and the Reeve; the Knight’s expansive philosophical romance; the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, a satiric beast fable; and the Parson’s prose sermon on the Seven Deadly Sins. Several tales are concerned with marriage: The Wife of Bath uses marriage as the subject of her self-justifying theories of female sovereignty; the Merchant offers a bitterly ironic and corrosive story about matrimony; and the Franklin reveals an optimistic, genteel, middle-class vision of the sacrament.

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As the pilgrimage unfolds, the participants engage in lively conversations and arguments between tales. There are also interruptions within tales during which the characters enter into relationships (usually of rivalry) with one another or develop and enrich by their actions the portraits presented in the General Prologue.

In many cases the interaction between the pilgrims, as well as the progressive revelation of character, color the tales themselves, heightening their import or their irony. For example, the prologue and tale of the Wife of Bath overtly serve to justify her wrenching of sovereignty from each of her five husbands in turn. Only thus, according to her, can there be bliss in wedlock. Yet both prologue and tale abound in points, unconsciously made by the Wife herself, that contradict her and expose her as a shrew for whom the pleasure in marriage is strife in and out of bed. Conversely, the Pardoner (a minor ecclesiastical official whose traffic in indulgences invited widespread corruption) revels in describing his villainy in the prologue and in underscoring it in his tale (a hypocritical sermon condemning his own special vice, greed for money). A superb actor, the Pardoner exaggerates his vices of character, while the Wife of Bath tries to reduce and to rationalize hers.

Chaucer reserves a special irony for his narrator, who is Chaucer himself in the role of a character accompanying the pilgrims. The naïveté of Chaucer the narrator and his apparently unsystematic descriptions of the pilgrims in the Ceneral Prologue enable Chaucer the poet to make telling points at his characters’ expense. When it is the narrator’s turn to relate a tale, he knows only one in verse, the inept popular romance of Sir Thopas, which the host interrupts in disgust, prompting the narrator to reply with a long, tedious moral tale in prose. Yet here, too, Chaucer’s wit is double-edged, for Sir Thopas is actually a hilarious satire on popular romances, composed with malicious skill.

The Canterbury Tales ranks as one of the unquestioned masterpieces of world literature. It is outstanding for its immense variety, brilliant characterization, psychological insights, and gusto, and for the loving accuracy with which Chaucer delineates the human condition.

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Spine and title page of John Urry’s edition of Chaucer's complete works

Spine and title page of John Urry’s edition of Chaucer’s complete works (Source : wikipedia.org)

Shorter Poems.

Chaucer’s shorter poems, written at various times throughout his life, include translations and standard imitations of French ballades, and verses on love, politics, and religion. Two political poems, Lack of Steadfastness and The Former Age, written late in Chaucer’s life, reflect his bitterness at England’s decadence under Richard II. Of special interest among his shorter poems is The Complaint of Mars, a metaphorical treatment of the love of Mars for Venus in terms of the heavenly movements of the two planets bearing their names. Using this device, Chaucer puts the love affair in a double perspective—one human, personal, and pathetic; the other detached, scientific, and determined. Such an ambiguous attitude toward the failure of love inevitably recalls the larger aims of Troilus and Criseyde, which may have been composed during the same period.

Chaucer’s Language.

Although Chaucer’s English and modern English are closely connected, there are several basic differences between them. ( 1 ) The vowels had values nearer those of modern Continental European languages than those of present-day English ( after Chaucer’s time, stressed vowels in English underwent diph-thongization and shifts of position). (2) Consonants and consonant groups now silent or simplified were given full value. (3) Some Germanic grammatical forms—for example, the past participial prefix y- (compare German ge-)—have disappeared from modern English, and inflections of nouns and verbs have been simplified. ( 4 ) In many words ending in -e or -es, the unstressed “e” was pronounced, at least in Chaucer’s poetic language. (5) English orthography has become much more regular than in the days before the introduction of printed books.

These divergencies from modern English can be illustrated in the following lines from the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales:

A knyght ther was and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and courtesie.

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In this example, ( 1 ) the stressed vowels of “tyme” and “riden” have the same sound as “team” in modern English; the stressed vowels of “loved” and “that” sound approximately like those of “foot” and “hot,” respectively, in modem English. (2) The initial consonant of “knyght” is sounded, and the -gh- group has a value approximately that of the German -ch in “ach.” (3) The infinitive ending -en in “riden” has been dropped in modern English (“ride”). (4) The final -e of “tyme” in line two must be pronounced to make the line scan, as must the final -ed in “loved” in line three (but the final -e of “trouthe” in line four is elided with the initial vowel of the following word. (5) The same vowel is orthographical-ly represented by “y” in “tyme” and “i” in “riden.”

There are also numerous differences in vocabulary between Chaucer’s English and modern English. Many of the words he used are no longer current and others have acquired different meanings. Although some readers may welcome the challenge of enjoying Chaucer in the original Middle English, there are numerous renderings of his major works into modern English.

Influence.

Chaucer’s style and techniques have been imitated through the centuries, but rarely with much success. The 15th century “Chaucer-ians” were numerous and idolatrous, but most of them lacked poetic genius. The Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser was influenced by Chaucer’s versification. Shakespeare borrowed Chaucer’s plot for his drama Troilus and Cressida but rejected the earlier master’s tone and vision. In the 17th and 18th centuries, John Dryden and Alexander Pope modernized some of his tales.

Generally, however, from the 16th through the 18th centuries Chaucer was patronizingly revered as the “father of English poetry”—an untutored genius who accomplished miracles using a rude language in an uncultivated nation. It was not until the 19th century that his greatness was rediscovered, and even then Matthew Arnold denied him “high seriousness,” a judgment accurate in one sense but revealing a certain insensitiv-ity to the depths of Chaucer’s comic genius. Chaucer’s reputation has continued to grow in the 20th century, especially in the United States, where his work has been the subject of much scholarship.

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