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- The Canterbury Tales - 3/183 -


conspired to make him a complete courtier." If we believe that his "Court of Love" had received such publicity as the literary media of the time allowed in the somewhat narrow and select literary world -- not to speak of "Troilus and Cressida," which, as Lydgate mentions it first among Chaucer's works, some have supposed to be a youthful production -- we find a third and not less powerful recommendation to the favour of the great co- operating with his learning and his gallant bearing. Elsewhere <2> reasons have been shown for doubt whether "Troilus and Cressida" should not be assigned to a later period of Chaucer's life; but very little is positively known about the dates and sequence of his various works. In the year 1386, being called as witness with regard to a contest on a point of heraldry between Lord Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor, Chaucer deposed that he entered on his military career in 1359. In that year Edward III invaded France, for the third time, in pursuit of his claim to the French crown; and we may fancy that, in describing the embarkation of the knights in "Chaucer's Dream", the poet gained some of the vividness and stir of his picture from his recollections of the embarkation of the splendid and well- appointed royal host at Sandwich, on board the eleven hundred transports provided for the enterprise. In this expedition the laurels of Poitiers were flung on the ground; after vainly attempting Rheims and Paris, Edward was constrained, by cruel weather and lack of provisions, to retreat toward his ships; the fury of the elements made the retreat more disastrous than an overthrow in pitched battle; horses and men perished by thousands, or fell into the hands of the pursuing French. Chaucer, who had been made prisoner at the siege of Retters, was among the captives in the possession of France when the treaty of Bretigny -- the "great peace" -- was concluded, in May, 1360. Returning to England, as we may suppose, at the peace, the poet, ere long, fell into another and a pleasanter captivity; for his marriage is generally believed to have taken place shortly after his release from foreign durance. He had already gained the personal friendship and favour of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the King's son; the Duke, while Earl of Richmond, had courted, and won to wife after a certain delay, Blanche, daughter and co-heiress of Henry Duke of Lancaster; and Chaucer is by some believed to have written "The Assembly of Fowls" to celebrate the wooing, as he wrote "Chaucer's Dream" to celebrate the wedding, of his patron. The marriage took place in 1359, the year of Chaucer's expedition to France; and as, in "The Assembly of Fowls," the formel or female eagle, who is supposed to represent the Lady Blanche, begs that her choice of a mate may be deferred for a year, 1358 and 1359 have been assigned as the respective dates of the two poems already mentioned. In the "Dream," Chaucer prominently introduces his own lady-love, to whom, after the happy union of his patron with the Lady Blanche, he is wedded amid great rejoicing; and various expressions in the same poem show that not only was the poet high in favour with the illustrious pair, but that his future wife had also peculiar claims on their regard. She was the younger daughter of Sir Payne Roet, a native of Hainault, who had, like many of his countrymen, been attracted to England by the example and patronage of Queen Philippa. The favourite attendant on the Lady Blanche was her elder sister Katherine: subsequently married to Sir Hugh Swynford, a gentleman of Lincolnshire; and destined, after the death of Blanche, to be in succession governess of her children, mistress of John of Gaunt, and lawfully-wedded Duchess of Lancaster. It is quite sufficient proof that Chaucer's position at Court was of no mean consequence, to find that his wife, the sister of the future Duchess of Lancaster, was one of the royal maids of honour, and even, as Sir Harris Nicolas conjectures, a god-daughter of the Queen -- for her name also was Philippa.

Between 1359, when the poet himself testifies that he was made prisoner while bearing arms in France, and September 1366, when Queen Philippa granted to her former maid of honour, by the name of Philippa Chaucer, a yearly pension of ten marks, or L6, 13s. 4d., we have no authentic mention of Chaucer, express or indirect. It is plain from this grant that the poet's marriage with Sir Payne Roet's daughter was not celebrated later than 1366; the probability is, that it closely followed his return from the wars. In 1367, Edward III. settled upon Chaucer a life- pension of twenty marks, "for the good service which our beloved Valet -- 'dilectus Valettus noster' -- Geoffrey Chaucer has rendered, and will render in time to come." Camden explains 'Valettus hospitii' to signify a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber; Selden says that the designation was bestowed "upon young heirs designed to he knighted, or young gentlemen of great descent and quality." Whatever the strict meaning of the word, it is plain that the poet's position was honourable and near to the King's person, and also that his worldly circumstances were easy, if not affluent -- for it need not be said that twenty marks in those days represented twelve or twenty times the sum in these. It is believed that he found powerful patronage, not merely from the Duke of Lancaster and his wife, but from Margaret Countess of Pembroke, the King's daughter. To her Chaucer is supposed to have addressed the "Goodly Ballad", in which the lady is celebrated under the image of the daisy; her he is by some understood to have represented under the title of Queen Alcestis, in the "Court of Love" and the Prologue to "The Legend of Good Women;" and in her praise we may read his charming descriptions and eulogies of the daisy -- French, "Marguerite," the name of his Royal patroness. To this period of Chaucer's career we may probably attribute the elegant and courtly, if somewhat conventional, poems of "The Flower and the Leaf," "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale," &c. "The Lady Margaret," says Urry, ". . . would frequently compliment him upon his poems. But this is not to be meant of his Canterbury Tales, they being written in the latter part of his life, when the courtier and the fine gentleman gave way to solid sense and plain descriptions. In his love-pieces he was obliged to have the strictest regard to modesty and decency; the ladies at that time insisting so much upon the nicest punctilios of honour, that it was highly criminal to depreciate their sex, or do anything that might offend virtue." Chaucer, in their estimation, had sinned against the dignity and honour of womankind by his translation of the French "Roman de la Rose," and by his "Troilus and Cressida" -- assuming it to have been among his less mature works; and to atone for those offences the Lady Margaret (though other and older accounts say that it was the first Queen of Richard II., Anne of Bohemia), prescribed to him the task of writing "The Legend of Good Women" (see introductory note to that poem). About this period, too, we may place the composition of Chaucer's A. B. C., or The Prayer of Our Lady, made at the request of the Duchess Blanche, a lady of great devoutness in her private life. She died in 1369; and Chaucer, as he had allegorised her wooing, celebrated her marriage, and aided her devotions, now lamented her death, in a poem entitled "The Book of the Duchess; or, the Death of Blanche.<3>

In 1370, Chaucer was employed on the King's service abroad; and in November 1372, by the title of "Scutifer noster" -- our Esquire or Shield-bearer -- he was associated with "Jacobus Pronan," and "Johannes de Mari civis Januensis," in a royal commission, bestowing full powers to treat with the Duke of Genoa, his Council, and State. The object of the embassy was to negotiate upon the choice of an English port at which the Genoese might form a commercial establishment; and Chaucer, having quitted England in December, visited Genoa and Florence, and returned to England before the end of November 1373 -- for on that day he drew his pension from the Exchequer in person. The most interesting point connected with this Italian mission is the question, whether Chaucer visited Petrarch at Padua. That he did, is unhesitatingly affirmed by the old biographers; but the authentic notices of Chaucer during the years 1372-1373, as shown by the researches of Sir Harris Nicolas, are confined to the facts already stated; and we are left to answer the question by the probabilities of the case, and by the aid of what faint light the poet himself affords. We can scarcely fancy that Chaucer, visiting Italy for the first time, in a capacity which opened for him easy access to the great and the famous, did not embrace the chance of meeting a poet whose works he evidently knew in their native tongue, and highly esteemed. With Mr Wright, we are strongly disinclined to believe "that Chaucer did not profit by the opportunity . . . of improving his acquaintance with the poetry, if not the poets, of the country he thus visited, whose influence was now being felt on the literature of most countries of Western Europe." That Chaucer was familiar with the Italian language appears not merely from his repeated selection as Envoy to Italian States, but by many passages in his poetry, from "The Assembly of Fowls" to "The Canterbury Tales." In the opening of the first poem there is a striking parallel to Dante's inscription on the gate of Hell. The first Song of Troilus, in "Troilus and Cressida", is a nearly literal translation of Petrarch's 88th Sonnet. In the Prologue to "The Legend of Good Women", there is a reference to Dante which can hardly have reached the poet at second- hand. And in Chaucer's great work -- as in The Wife of Bath's Tale, and The Monk's Tale -- direct reference by name is made to Dante, "the wise poet of Florence," "the great poet of Italy," as the source whence the author has quoted. When we consider the poet's high place in literature and at Court, which could not fail to make him free of the hospitalities of the brilliant little Lombard States; his familiarity with the tongue and the works of Italy's greatest bards, dead and living; the reverential regard which he paid to the memory of great poets, of which we have examples in "The House of Fame," and at the close of "Troilus and Cressida" <4>; along with his own testimony in the Prologue to The Clerk's Tale, we cannot fail to construe that testimony as a declaration that the Tale was actually told to Chaucer by the lips of Petrarch, in 1373, the very year in which Petrarch translated it into Latin, from Boccaccio's "Decameron."<5> Mr Bell notes the objection to this interpretation, that the words are put into the mouth, not of the poet, but of the Clerk; and meets it by the counter- objection, that the Clerk, being a purely imaginary personage, could not have learned the story at Padua from Petrarch -- and therefore that Chaucer must have departed from the dramatic assumption maintained in the rest of the dialogue. Instances could be adduced from Chaucer's writings to show that such a sudden "departure from the dramatic assumption" would not be unexampled: witness the "aside" in The Wife of Bath's Prologue, where, after the jolly Dame has asserted that "half so boldly there can no man swear and lie as a woman can", the poet hastens to interpose, in his own person, these two lines:

"I say not this by wives that be wise, But if it be when they them misadvise."

And again, in the Prologue to the "Legend of Good Women," from a description of the daisy --

"She is the clearness and the very light, That in this darke world me guides and leads,"


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