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indeed bequeathed no treatise De Vulgari Eloqucntia, but his grasp of the mysteries of verse is shown by the application of his ideas in practice. We have to do no more with ignorant minstrel or stupid monk, composing, as it were, by rote, but with a highly educated courtier who knew Latin, who knew French, and whose understanding was quickened by early and unbroken commerce with the world. Such a person was naturally fitted to act a leading part in a revolution—political, linguistic, literary—which, with the breakdown of royal and aristocratic prejudice, restored to the English race its place in the comity of nations.
The precise year of Chaucer's birth is unknown. It is conceivable that he himself did not know the Binh and date, since, in a deposition made by him training. at Westminster in October 1386, he stated that he was then "forty years and upwards," and "had been armed twenty-seven years." The word "upwards" is elastic, but, supposing it to represent "six," this would tally with other dates that have been ascertained, and make him, at his entry upon military service, nineteen years of age. His father and grandfather were wine - merchants in Thames Street, and it is not by any means unlikely that his early associations were to some extent revived in the realism of his maturer writings. The name Chaucer is Norman (chaucier = stockinger). In 1357, when he was sixteen or seventeen, he served as "squier" (or page) to the Princess Elizabeth, first wife of Lionel Duke of Clarence; and, two years later, he accompanied the expedition to France. There, taken prisoner, he was ransomed by the king for sixteen pounds. He was afterwards appointed "Valet of the King's Chamber," and married Philippa, stated to have been daughter to Sir Payne Roet, and one of the "demoiselles" in attendance on the Queen. Chaucer's connection with the Court easily explains the panegyrising and sentimental tone of his early poems, and their dependence on fashionable French models.
Appertaining to this first phase is the Bokc of the Duchese, or The Dethe of Blanche. The source of the nKBokcof poem is Machault's Dit de la Fontaine the Duchesne. ^moureuse, which has been expanded by means of allegorical accretions and learned allusions in imitation of the Romance of the Rose. The metre is the short couplet, as in the Dit, but the characteristic defect of this metre, its noisy monotonousness,1 is reduced, as Chaucer handles it, by frequent enjambement. It is noteworthy that the English poet acknowledges no obligation, an omission partly accounted for by his borrowing from Machault rather the hint than the actual development of the theme. The poem commences with a personal note. Chaucer complains of sleeplessness, due, he believes, to a malady from which he has suffered these eight years, and which only one physician can remedy. To "drive the night away," he takes a book. Though he does not name the work, we know it to be Ovid's Metamorphoses, and what he reads is the piteous tale of Ceyx and his true spouse Halcyone. This story Chaucer, following Machault's precedent, but writing with greater detail, narrates as a prologue and parallel to the more significant sequel.
1 To rcalihe this, one has only to rctwl the first dozen lines of The Ladij nf the Lalce.
Hardly has he finished reading this tale when he falls asleep and has a wondrous dream. It is May. His chamber is flooded with sweet bird-music, and transformed into a palace of delight. Windows and walls are all painted o'er with the Story of Troy and the Romance of the Rose. This changes to a huntingscene, and that to the vision of a young man clad in black and sitting with his back against a huge oak. The poet greets him, and attempts to learn his thoughts, at first without success, but, persevering, draws from him an elaborate description of one whom he calls "the goode faire White." The disconsolate knight dwells on her personal charms, her accomplishments, the freshness and innocence of her character, but does not state their relationship. Moreover, it is only at the close of the poem that the fact of her death is distinctly conveyed. The vision concludes rather abruptly. On awaking the poet finds that he has still in hand the book of "Alcyone and Seys the Kynge," and mentally resolves to put the quaint dream in rhyme, and that soon.
It would be possible to read this poem without the slightest suspicion of its real intention. The dream appears to have grown, quite in accordance with what we know of dreams, out of the tale; but, in point of
fact, it was evolved out of the circumstances in which the English Court then found itself. All
The intention. . _ .
were lamenting the death of .Blanche, daughter and heiress of the Duke of Lancaster, and wife of John of Gaunt; but the only words in the Bohc which plainly refer to her are those already cited, "goode faire White." By inditing this poem, which so delicately enshrines her memory, Chaucer claims the position of poet-laureate of the Plantagenets. But, with all his delicacy, he is not very well suited to the position. In this early, technically by no means perfect, composition, the dramatic quality of his genius begins to peep. Instead of concentrating his efforts on a threnody, he drops almost insensibly into dialogue. To be sure, the speeches are inordinately spun out.
To the same phase, or period, as the JBoke of the
Duchesse belongs the Compleynte of the Dethe of Piti.
Ttecom- Here we have fully described the "sick
pieynte of the ness" at which he had hinted in the former
Dethe of PiW.
work. The germ of the poem is discoverable in the Romance of the Rose. Chaucer, "ful of busy peyne," had written a letter to Pity, but, on running to deliver it, finds her dead, and buried in a heart. As the poet cannot hand the " bill" to Dame Pity, he passes it to the reader instead. The allegory is rather bare. The Compleynte is in "rhyme royal," and probably the first instance of the employment of this metre in the English tongue. A stanza may be quoted in illustration of both metre and symbolism:—
"Abonte hir herse there stoden lustely,
An example of an eight-lined stanza, very similar in form except for the splitting of the couplet by interposition of a & rhyme, occurs in Chaucer's A.B.C., an invocation of Mary translated, at the desire of the "goode faire White," from Deguilleville. In some minor pieces, artistically constructed after French models, we have, it may be, the remains of Chaucer's youthful lyric.
In 1369 Chaucer was present, with Petrarch and Froissart (who mentions a certain "Joffroy Chancier"), chancer and a^ *he marriage of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the great with Violanta, daughter of Galeazzo, Lord of Milan. He was again in Italy in 1372-73, and a third time in 1378. The effect of these visits was to set him in touch with the Italian Renaissance, and he used his opportunities for his individual benefit and for that of his native literature. With his return to England after his first Italian tour begins a new artistic phase of which the dominant notes are inspired by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. So far as Dante was concerned, there could be no question of personal relations—he had long been dead—but in Chaucer's verse is found ample evidence that the English poet had made careful study of Dante's works. Let us take, first of all, a composition produced at this