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CENTURY READINGS FOR A COURSE IN

ENGLISH LITERATURE

CENTURY READINGS FOR A COURSE

IN ENGLISH LITERATURE

GEOFFREY CHAUCER (c. 1340-1400)

Since Chaucer's father, John Chaucer, was not only a successful London vintner, but also, probably, an occasional servant of the king, it is not surprising that at an early age our poet himself entered the service of royalty. Our earliest records concerning him show that in April, 1357, he was occupied, perhaps as page, in the household of Elizabeth, wife of Prince Lionel, son of Edward III, where he continued to serve throughout that year and probably into the next. During this service, Chaucer accompanied the princess to Hatfield, in Yorkshire, to London, and probably to other parts of England. We surmise that he witnessed more than one brilliant chivalric entertainment, and that at Hatfield, during Christmastide of 1357, he met his future friend and patron, John of Gaunt. During the year 1359, Chaucer served as a soldier in the army of Edward III, in France. Having been taken prisoner, not far from Reims, he was released through a ransom to which the king himself contributed the substantial sum of sixteen pounds. After the conclusion of this expedition, with the Peace of Brétigny, May 8, 1360, Chaucer returned to England, where he seems to have increased in favor at court, for in 1367 he was granted a life pension of twenty marks as a valet of the king. During the next ten or fifteen years, Chaucer took part in a considerable number of diplomatic missions to the Continent, of which the most important, from a literary point of view, are a secret embassy to Genoa and Florence (Dec., 1372, to April, 1373), and a mission to Milan (May to September, 1378). Although Petrarch and Boccaccio were both living at the time of Chaucer's first visit to Italy, we have no evidence that the English poet met either of them. To these Italian journeys, however, may be due Chaucer's subsequent devotion to Italian literature. Aside from his diplomatic employment, the poet had official duties at home in connection with the customs of the port of London. In 1374 he was appointed comptroller of the customs and subsidy of wools, skins, and tanned hides, and in 1382 he received the additional appointment of comptroller of the petty customs. In the autumn of 1386, Chaucer sat for a short time in parliament as a knight of the shire for Kent. In the political eclipse of Richard, from the latter part of 1386 to 1389, Chaucer lost his offices, a loss that left him, presumably, much leisure for writing. During this period he may have written a considerable part of The Canterbury Tales. In 1389, Chaucer was again in the service of the government as clerk of the king's works, and although the loss of this appointment, in 1391, left him in straitened circumstances, a royal pension of twenty pounds, in 1394, and a yearly gift of a tun of wine, in 1398, contributed somewhat toward his comfort. When Henry IV, son of Chaucer's old patron, John of Gaunt, came to the throne in 1399, the poet promptly addressed to him a baliade entitled The Compleynt of Chaucer to his Empty Purse. To this pleasant bit of begging the king responded readily with a pension of forty marks, in addition to the annuity of twenty pounds that had been granted in 1394. Chaucer spent his last days, then, in comparative comfort, and on his death, October 25, 1400, he was buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey, which has since become the Poets' Corner.'

Although the exact chronology of Chaucer's works is far from certain, the literary influences under which he wrote are clearly defined. As a courtier, diplomat, and man of the world, he was familiar with literary fashions at home and abroad,- literary fashions definitely embodied in his works. His first poems are imitations or translations of French poems popular at court both in France and in England. To an early stage of his career is assigned his translation of at least part of the Roman de la Rose, a French poem composed during the thirteenth century and popular in the fourteenth. French in style is The Book of the Duchess, written in 1369 as a lament for the death of Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt. Upon French models Chaucer composed his early poem, A. B. C., and numerous shorter poems that highten balades, roundels, virelayes.' The Parliament of Fowls, written, probably, in 1382, in honor of the

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marriage of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, is conspicuously influenced by French poetical taste. During his journeys to Italy, or before, Chaucer acquired a new source of literary inspiration in the works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Although from Dante and Petrarch his literal borrowings are few, his extensive verbal obligations to Boccaccio are shown in Troilus and Criseyde, written about 1383, and in the Knight's Tale. The House of Fame, written, perhaps, about 1379, clearly shows the influence of Dante, as well as of French allegorical poetry. To the last fifteen years or so of Chaucer's life, without specification, may be assigned the Legend of Good Women and the Canterbury Tales. Although in these works Chaucer used a multiplicity of sources, the poems themselves show vigorous increase in English spirit and in literary originality.

THE CANTERBURY TALES

THE PROLOGUE

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath percèd to the

roote,

5

ΤΟ

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendrèd is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspirèd hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open yë,
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages):
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blis ful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were
seke.

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20

25

Bifel that, in that sesoun on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come in-to that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esèd atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste, 30
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon,
That I was of hir felawshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take our wey, ther as I yow devyse.

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But natheles, whyl I have tyme and space, Er that I ferther in this tale pace,

36

Me thinketh it acordaunt to resoun,

39

To telle yow al the condicioun
Of ech of hem, so as it semèd me,
And whiche they weren, and of what degree;
And eek in what array that they were inne :

A lovyer, and a lusty bacheler,
With lokkes crulle, as they were leyd in

presse.

Al bismotered with his habergeoun.
For he was late y-come from his viage,
And wente for to doon his pilgrimage.
With him ther was his sone, a yong
SQUYER,

80

d

Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse.
Of his stature he was of evene lengthe,
And wonderly delivere, and greet
strengthe.

And he hadde been somtyme in chivachye, 85
In Flaundres, in Artoys, and Picardye,
And born him wel, as of so litel space,
In hope to stonden in his lady grace.
Embrouded was he, as it were a mede
Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and rede, 90
Singinge he was, or floytinge, al the day;
He was as fresh as is the month of May.
Short was his goune, with sleves longe and
wyde.

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105

And he was clad in cote and hood of grene;
A sheef of pecok arwes brighte and kene
Under his belt he bar ful thriftily,
(Wel coude he dresse his takel yemanly:
His arwes droupèd noght with fetheres
lowe),

And in his hand he bar a mighty bowe.
A not-heed hadde he, with a broun visage.
Of wode-craft wel coude he al the usage. 110
Upon his arm he bar a gay bracer,
And by his syde a swerd and a bokeler,
And on that other syde a gay daggere,
Harneised wel, and sharp as point of spere;
A Cristofre on his brest of silver shene. 115
An horn he bar, the bawdrik was of grene;
A forster was he, soothly, as I gesse.
Ther was also a Nonne, a PRIORESSE,
That of hir smyling was ful simple and coy;
Hir gretteste ooth was but by seynt Loy; 120
And she was clepèd madame Eglentyne.
Ful wel she song the service divyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely;
And Frensh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frensh of Paris was to hir unknowe.
At mete wel y-taught was she with-alle;
She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,
Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe.
Wel coude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe,
That no drope ne fille up-on hir brest.
in curteisye was set ful moche hir lest.
Ihr over lippe wypèd she so clene,
That in hir coppe was no ferthing sene

125

131

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140

Ful semely after hir mete she raughte,
And sikerly she was of greet disport,
And ful plesaunt, and amiable of port,
And peynèd hir to countrefete chere
Of court, and been estatlich of manere,
And to ben holden digne of reverence.
But, for to speken of hir conscience,
She was so charitable and so pitous,
She wolde wepe, if that she sawe a mous
Caught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smale houndes had she, that she fedde 146
With rosted flesh, or milk and wastel breed.
But sore weep she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte:
And al was conscience and tendre herte. 150
Ful semely hir wimpel pinched was;
Hir nose tretys; hir eyen greye as glas;
Hir mouth ful smal, and ther-to softe and
reed;

But sikerly she hadde a fair forheed.
It was almost a spanne brood, I trowe; 155
For, hardily. she was nat undergrowe.
Ful fetis was hir cloke, as I was war.
Of smal coral aboute hir arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene;
And ther-on heng a broche of gold ful shene,
On which ther was first write a crownèd A,
And after, Amor vincit omnia.

162

166

Another NONNE with hir hadde she, That was hir chapeleyne, and PREESTES thre. A MONK ther was, a fair for the maistrye, An out-rydere, that lovede venerye; A manly man, to been an abbot able. Ful many a deyntee hors hadde he in stable: And, whan he rood, men mighte his brydel here

170

175

Ginglen in a whistling wynd as clere,
And eek as loude as doth the chapel-belle,
Ther as this lord was keper of the celle.
The reule of seint Maure or of seint Beneit,
By-cause that it was old and som-del streit,
This ilke monk leet olde thinges pace,
And held after the newe world the space.
He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,
That seith, that hunters been nat holy men ;
Ne that a monk, whan he is cloisterlees,
Is liknèd til a fish that is waterlees;
This is to seyn, a monk out of his cloistre.
But thilke text held he nat worth an oistre.
And I seyde his opinioun was good.
What sholde he studie, and make him-selven

wood,

180

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