Lecture notes from prison (II)

Geoffrey Chaucer (b. 1328? – d. 1400)

This is the first great poet of England and he is therefore called the Father of English Poetry.

He was born in London, but at what date it is uncertain. His father was probably a vintner, or wine – merchant, occupying a good position in the society at the time. We do not know whether he received his education at Oxford or at Cambridge. There is some reason to suppose it may have been at both.

Of his manhood’s earlier years we know nothing that is authentic. If we may judge from his writings, he seems to have spent much of his time in reading, translating into English, and imitating the interesting romances of the French trouvères.

When he reached manhood he became attached to the court of Edward III, as attendant on the Princes Lionel and John of Gaunt. In 1359 Edward renewed his attack upon France, in his attempt to win the French crown. Chaucer bore arms and fought bravely for King and country; but unfortunately the French took him prisoner. He was soon released however, and after his return to London pensions and gifts and lucrative situations were given him, specially through the kindness of John of Gaunt, who later on became the poet’s brother in-law, having married Chaucer’s wife’s sister.

In 1372 he was dispatched to Italy on royal business. In this country he very likely met the great Italian poets Petrarch and Boccaccio, who were both alive then, and whose works were the delight of the age. When he returned to England Chaucer remembered the soft and musical language of Italy, and endeavoured in his poems to make the rough English language of his time more agreeable to the ear. He also told over again some of those delightful stories of the authors just named, and with such power that the old tales read like new stories.

All went well with Chaucer during the reign of Richard II until Gloucester, the King’s uncle interfered in the Government. Then the poet fell on evil days. His most lucrative offices were taken from him, and we frequently find him reduced to the necessity of borrowing money to meet his immediate wants.

But he bore up against misfortune with a cheerful spirit, and it is pleasant to know that in the first year of the reign of Henry IV he received new pensions and his last days were free from care. He was buried in the Poet’s Corner at the Westminster Abbey.

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