Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400)
N. S. Thompson
IF JOHN DRYDEN in 1700 was able to propose Geoffrey Chaucer as the “Father of English Poetry,” earlier generations had not only been copious with praise, but also had been quite specific about the nature of the medieval poet’s merits. For William Caxton (1478), Chaucer was “the worshipful fader & first fondeur & enbellisher of ornate eloquence in our englissh,” and earlier that century he had been noted as a “noble Rethor” by John Lydgate (c. 1370-1450), for his moral “vertue” by Henry Scogan (c. 1407), and as “the floure of rethoryk / In englisshe tong & excellent poete” by John Walton (c. 1410), while his contemporary Thomas Usk (d. 1388) called him “the noble philosophical poete” and the French poet Eustache Deschamps (c. 1340-71404) called him a “great Ovid” and a “great translator.” Not only was Chaucer the recipient of accolades from his fellow poets John Gower (c. 13307-1408) and Thomas Hoccleve (c. 1370-c.1450) along with Lydgate, the latter two claimed him as a direct influence, while later Scottish poets in the fifteenth century—Robert Henryson (c.1420-before 1505-1506), William Dunbar (c. 1460-1513), and Gavin Douglas (c. 1475-1522)—were equally happy to claim poetic paternity from him and became known as the “Scottish Chaucerians.” Plaudits continued in print during the Renaissance: Edmund Spenser remarked that Chaucer’s language was the “well of English undefiled” and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida owed much to his reading of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The Augustan poets were not stinting in praise, with John Dryden publishing his versions of the tales of the Nun’s priest and the Wife of Bath in his Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), and later Alexander Pope his imitations of “The Merchant’s Tale” and the Wife of Bath’s “Prologue” in popular miscellanies of his day. If Chaucer was not seen by the Romantics as a purveyor of eloquence (in a memorandum book of 1807 Lord Byron thought him “obscene and contemptible”), then the many positive references to him serve as a reminder of how we see Chaucer today, not so much as the father of English poetry but rather as the founder of English realism. The story of how he could become this out of the heavily stylized (for some, Gothic) literature of his day paradoxically reveals Chaucer’s profound engagement with the literature of his time as he develops into the mature writer who created The Canterbury Tales.
ALTHOUGH the exact year of his birth is not known, it is safe to say that Chaucer was born in London, around the year 1340, the son of a prosperous wine merchant, John Chaucer (1312-1366) and his wife, Agnes de Copton (d. 1381). The family lived in the Vintry, a medieval ward north of Thames Street, where John Chaucer owned a tenement, which would have housed his wine cellars, as well other properties inherited after the Black Death. In 1347 John was appointed deputy in Southampton to the king’s chief butler, overseeing the import of...