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Chaucer, Geoffrey (c. 1340-1400)

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Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London in 1342 and died there in 1400. He is often considered the father of English literature and the best English poet before Shakespeare. Chaucer spent his life at court, serving three successive English monarchs: Edward III (r. 1327-1377), Richard II (r. 1377-1399), and Henry IV (r. 1399-1413). He was especially close to Henry IV, having formed a friendship with him when the king was the earl of Derby in the 1390s. In his official capacity Chaucer went on several diplomatic missions and in Italy was introduced to the works of Boccaccio (1313-1375), Dante, Petrarch, and Boethius, which influenced his own work in both form and content. He translated Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy into English. The significance of this work in shaping Chaucer's style is evident in his finest piece, Troilus and Criseyde.

Troilus and Criseyde also reflects Chaucer's overarching concern with various types of love and their consequences. The question of what sort of love can best bring the individual lasting happiness is central. In this work the fleeting happiness of physical love is contrasted with the eternal love of God.

God loves, and grants that love shall be eternal.
All creatures in the world through love exist
And lacking love, lack all that may persist.
1 

The contrast between this divine love and the unhappiness that overtakes Troilus and Criseyde underscores the fleeting nature of earthly attachments. Book 4 of this work treats the same matters of predestination, foreordination, and free will that Boethius considered. In fact, Chaucer incorporated whole arguments, including their examples, from The Consolation of Philosophy. Chaucer, however, rendered them into the first masterful work of English poetry.

I must suppose then, had I such a thought,
That God ordains each thing that is to come
Because it is to come, and for else naught!
Why, then, I might believe things, all and some,
From ages past, whate'er they issued from,
Are cause of God's high power that before
Hath known all things and nothing doth ignore!2 

Canterbury Tales shows a similar interest in love and happiness. Despite the hilarity of the Wife of Bath, her story concerns the nature of lasting happiness and love. Likewise, the tales of the Knight, Miller, and Reeve all deliberate on aspects of love. In addition to considering ever-present questions of human happiness and free will, Chaucer's technical and artistic perfection influenced later literary figures.

 


 

Endnotes

[1] Chaucer, Troilus and Creseyde (New York: Random House, 1932), p. 111. Emphasis added by Pierre Goodrich.

[2] Ibid., p. 217.

Bibliography

Works by the Author

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales. Translated by J. W. Nicolson. Garden City: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc., 1934.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Complete Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Translated by John S. P. Tatlock and Percy MacKaye. New York: Macmillan Co., 1947.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Translated by Frank Ernest Hill. New York: The Heritage Press, 1946.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Cressida. Translated by George P. Krapp. New York: Random House, 1932.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Tales from Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales. Translated by Eleanor Jarjeon. London; The Medici Society, Ltd., 1930.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Translated by Walter W. Skeat. Oxford; Oxford at the Clarenden Press, 1894-97.

Morris, William. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1958.

Works about the Author

Rickert, Edith, comp. Chaucer's World. Edited by Clair C. Olson and Martin M. Crow. New York: Columbia University Press, 1948.

Source

The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.

Last modified April 10, 2014