Page images
PDF
EPUB

for the years 1356 to 1359, of Elizabeth, wife of Prince Lionel, third son of Edward III; and they contain, besides other things, entries of--(I) in April 1357, 'An entire suit of clothes, consisting of a paltock' (or short cloak), 'a pair of red and black breeches, with shoes, provided for Geoffrey Chaucerc;' (2) on May 20, 1357, an article of dress, of which the name is lost by a defect in the leaf, purchased for Geoffrey Chaucer in London; (3) in December of the same year, a donation of 35. 6d. to Geoffrey Chaucer, for ' necessaries.' That this Geoffrey Chaucer was the poet is almost certain. But the first quite certain, and much the most important record as to Chaucer, is his own statement, in a deposition made by him at Westminster in October 1386, at the famous trial between Richard Lord Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor, when the poet stated that he was. forty years of age and upwards, and had already borne arms for twenty-seven years.

If then we take Chaucer's “forty years and upwards' as fortysix, we fix the date of his birth at 1340; and this would make him seventeen years old when he was in Prince Lionel's household, probably as a page, as the sums paid for his dress, and given to him, are a good deal lower than those allotted to other members of the household. This date would also make Chaucer nineteen when, doubtless in the retinue of Prince Lionel, he joined Edward the Third's army, which invaded France in the autumn of 1359, and was taken prisoner in that country, as he himself informs us. (Against this date of 1340 as that of the poet's birth is to be set the traditional, but groundless, date of 1328, or thereabout.)

Whether Chaucer studied at Oxford or at Cambridged, whether

[ocr errors]

c At a cost of 7s. (of which the paltock was 4s.), equal to about 5l. of our present money.

d In one of the poems wrongly ascribed to him, The Court of Love, Chaucer is supposed to make reference to his residence at Cambridge

• My name?
Philogenet I cald am, fer and nere,

Of Cambri clerke.
Leland thinks that Chaucer studied at both Universities.

he was educated for the Bar or the Church, we have now no means of determining; but his position in Prince Lionel's household would, says Mr. Bond, have given him the benefit of society of the highest refinement, in personal attendance on a young and spirited prince of the blood. He would have had his imagination fed by scenes of the most brilliant court festivities e, rendered more imposing by the splendid triumphs with which they were connected; and he would have had the advantage of royal patrons in the early exercise of his genius.' He would have been helped in 'perfecting that gift which so transcendently distinguishes him from the versifiers of his time--refinement of expression in his own language'-a gift which his first poems show as well as his last. It is quite certain that Chaucer was a diligent student and a man of the most extensive learning. The acquaintance he possessed with the classics, with divinity, with astronomy, with so much as was then known of chemistry, and indeed with every other branch of the scholastic learning of the age, proves that his education had been particularly attended to f.'

Chaucer's military career commenced, as we have seen, in the year 1359, at which time he must have joined Edward the Third's army, which invaded France in the beginning of November of that year. After ineffectually besieging Rheims the English army laid siege to Paris (1360), when at length, suffering from famine and fatigue, Edward made peace at Bretigny near Chartres. This treaty, called the “Great Peace,' was ratified in the following October, and King John was set at liberty. In this expedition Chaucer was made prisoner, and most probably obtained his release after the ratification of the treaty.

e That most splendid entertainment given by Edward III (in 1358) to the royal personages then in England—including the King of France, the Queen of Scotland, the King of Cyprus, and the sister of the captive King of France, and Edward's own mother, the almost forgotten Queen Isabella—at what was ever after called the Great Feast of St. George.' Chaucer was probably also present, with Prince Lionel, at the wedding of John of Gaunt and Lady Blanche of Lancaster, at Reading, and at the famous joustings subsequently held at London in honour of the event.

Life of Chaucer by Sir H. Nicolas.

We have no means of ascertaining how he spent the next six years of his life, except from hints in our official records and the poet's own works. In 1367 the first notice of the poet occurs on the Issue Rolls of the Exchequer, when a pension of 20 marksh for life was granted by the king to Chaucer as one of the valets of the king's chamber'-or, as the office was sometimes called,

valet of the king's household' in consideration of former and future services. This pension for ‘former' services as well as future, leaves little doubt that Chaucer entered the king's household soon after his return to England. In this service the poet, then probably twenty-one, seems to have fallen desperately and hopelessly in love, probably with a lady above him in rank, who rejected him. His earliest original poem, his Compleynte to Pite (pity), which must have been written about 1367, after his rejection by his lady-love, tells us that for many years he dared not speak his feelings towards her, and when at last he did so, he found Pity dead in her heart; but still he pleads pathetically with her for her love, and declares that though she still refuses it, and he desires only death, he will love her alone till that death comes i.

& Issue Rolls of the Exchequer and the Tower Rolls. The details here are from Sir H. Nicolas' Life of Chaucer, prefixed to Chaucer's poetical works in the Aldine series of the Poets.

h A mark was 135. 4d. of our money, but the buying power of money was nearly ten times greater than at present. In 1350 the average price of a horse was 18s. 4d.; of an ox il. 45. 6d.; of a cow 175. 2d.; of a sheep 2s. 6d.; of a goose gd.; of a hen 2d.; of a day's labour in husbandry 3d. In Oxford, in 1310, wheat was 1os. a quarter ; in December 78. 8d, ; and in October 1311, 45. Tod.

i The old supposition that the Philippa' whom Chaucer married was the daughter of Sir Paon de Roet (a native of Hainault and King of Arms of Guienne) and sister to Katherine, widow of Sir Hugh Swynford, successively governess, mistress, and wife to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was founded on heraldic grounds. The Roet arms were adopted by Thomas Chaucer. Then Thomas Chaucer was made (without the slightest evidence) Geoffrey's son, and Philippa Roet was then made Geoffrey's wife. Chaucer's wife Philippa was one of the ladies in attendance on Queen Philippa, and in 1366 a pension of 10 marks was granted to her. After the death of the queen she appears to have been attached to the court of Constance of Castile, second wife of John of Gaunt.

During the years 1368 and 1369, Chaucer was in London, and received his pension in person.

In 1369 (Aug. 15) the death of Queen Philippa took place, and two or three months later, Blanche, the wife of John of Gaunt, died, at the age of twenty-nine. Chaucer did honour to the memory of his patron's wife in a funeral poem entitled “The Dethe of Blaunche the Duchesse k.' And in this poem he tells us, though sadly, that his own hopeless eight years' love is cured, what will not be, must needs be left;' or, as he says in Troilus,

' Criseyde loveth the sone of Tydeus,
And Troilus mot wepe in cares colde.
Swich is this world, whoso kan it biholde!
In ech estat is litil hertes reste!
God level us for to take it for the beste!'

(Bk. V. st. ccli. Il. 1760-4.) Chaucer's lines in the Blaunche about his hopeless love, which are referred to above, are in answer to the question why he cannot sleep at night.

• Trewly as I gesse,
I hold it be a sickënes
That I have suffred this eight yere ;
And yet my boote is never the nere;
For there is phisicien but one
That may me heale. But that is done.
Passe we over untille efte;
That wil not be, mote nedes be lefte.'

It was no good crying for the moon; and although the early shadow of disappointed love was still thrown over Chaucer's life, and made him tell of Troilus' sorrow, and sing the Complaint of Mars for his lost Venus, yet our poet was henceforth to work himself out into the freshness and brightness that still draw men to him as to spring sunshine.

k

* And goodë fairë white she hete (was called),
That was my lady namë righte.
She was therto bothe faire and bryghte,
She haddë not hir namë wronge.'

(Dethe of Blaunche the Duchesse, ll. 947-950.) 1 = allow, grant.

In the course of the next ten years (1370-1380) the poet was attached to the court, and employed in no less than seven diplomatic services. In 1370 he was abroad in the king's service, and received letters of protection, to be in force from June till Michaelmas. Two years after this (Nov. 12, 1372) Chaucer was joined in a commission with two citizens of Genoa to treat with the doge, citizens and merchants of Genoa, for the choice of an English port where the Genoese might form a commercial establishment. He appears to have left England before the end of the year, having on the ist of December received the sum of 631. 135. 4d. in aid of his expenses. He remained in Italy nearly twelve months, and went on the king's service to Florence as well as to Genoa. His return to England must have taken place before the 22nd of Nov. 1373, as on this day he received his pension in person m.

This was Chaucer's first important mission. It was no doubt skilfully executed, and gave entire satisfaction to the king, who on the 23rd of April, 1374, on the celebration of the feast of St. George, at Windsor, made him a grant of a pitcher of wine daily, to be received in the Port of London from the hands of the king's butler 1. On the roth of May the Corporation of London granted Chaucer a lease for his life of the dwelling-house above the gate of Aldgate, with the rooms built over, and a certain cellar beneath, on condition that he kept these buildings in good

m In this embassy Chaucer is supposed to have made acquaintanceship with Petrarch, who was at Arqua, two miles from Padua, in 1373, from January till September, and to have learned from him the tale of the patient Griselda. But it is not certain that the old biographers of Chaucer are to be trusted in this matter. If the date of the later editions of Petrarch's version can be trusted (there is no date in Ulrich Tell's first edition), Petrarch did not translate this tale from Boccaccio's Decameron into Latin until the end of Sept. 1373, after Chaucer's return, and his death occurred the next year (July 1374). And though it is the Cierk of Oxenford, and not Chaucer, that asserts that he learned the tale of a worthy cierk’at Padua, · Fraunces Petrarch, the laureate poete, yet there can be no question that Chaucer's Clerk's Tale is an enlarged and dorned translation of Petrarch's Latin version of Boccaccio's Italian story.

n This was commuted in 1378 for a yearly payment of 20 marks.

« PreviousContinue »