The Canterbury Tales HTML version

Life of Geoffrey Chaucer
NOT in point of genius only, but even in point of time, Chaucer may claim the proud designation
of "first" English poet. He wrote "The Court of Love" in 1345, and "The Romaunt of the Rose," if
not also "Troilus and Cressida," probably within the next decade: the dates usually assigned to
the poems of Laurence Minot extend from 1335 to 1355, while "The Vision of Piers Plowman"
mentions events that occurred in 1360 and 1362 -- before which date Chaucer had certainly
written "The Assembly of Fowls" and his "Dream." But, though they were his contemporaries,
neither Minot nor Langland (if Langland was the author of the Vision) at all approached Chaucer
in the finish, the force, or the universal interest of their works and the poems of earlier writer; as
Layamon and the author of the "Ormulum," are less English than Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-
Norman. Those poems reflected the perplexed struggle for supremacy between the two grand
elements of our language, which marked the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; a struggle
intimately associated with the political relations between the conquering Normans and the
subjugated Anglo-Saxons. Chaucer found two branches of the language; that spoken by the
people, Teutonic in its genius and its forms; that spoken by the learned and the noble, based on
the French Yet each branch had begun to borrow of the other -- just as nobles and people had
been taught to recognise that each needed the other in the wars and the social tasks of the
time; and Chaucer, a scholar, a courtier, a man conversant with all orders of society, but
accustomed to speak, think, and write in the words of the highest, by his comprehensive genius
cast into the simmering mould a magical amalgamant which made the two half-hostile elements
unite and interpenetrate each other. Before Chaucer wrote, there were two tongues in England,
keeping alive the feuds and resentments of cruel centuries; when he laid down his pen, there
was practically but one speech -- there was, and ever since has been, but one people.
Geoffrey Chaucer, according to the most trustworthy traditions- for authentic testimonies on the
subject are wanting -- was born in 1328; and London is generally believed to have been his
birth-place. It is true that Leland, the biographer of England's first great poet who lived nearest
to his time, not merely speaks of Chaucer as having been born many years later than the date
now assigned, but mentions Berkshire or Oxfordshire as the scene of his birth. So great
uncertainty have some felt on the latter score, that elaborate parallels have been drawn
between Chaucer, and Homer -- for whose birthplace several cities contended, and whose
descent was traced to the demigods. Leland may seem to have had fair opportunities of getting
at the truth about Chaucer's birth -- for Henry VIII had him, at the suppression of the
monasteries throughout England, to search for records of public interest the archives of the
religious houses. But it may be questioned whether he was likely to find many authentic
particulars regarding the personal history of the poet in the quarters which he explored; and
Leland's testimony seems to be set aside by Chaucer's own evidence as to his birthplace, and
by the contemporary references which make him out an aged man for years preceding the
accepted date of his death. In one of his prose works, "The Testament of Love," the poet
speaks of himself in terms that strongly confirm the claim of London to the honour of giving him
birth; for he there mentions "the city of London, that is to me so dear and sweet, in which I was
forth growen; and more kindly love," says he, "have I to that place than to any other in earth; as
every kindly creature hath full appetite to that place of his kindly engendrure, and to will rest and
peace in that place to abide." This tolerably direct evidence is supported -- so far as it can be at