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CHAUCER has been justly called by Dryden the father of modern English poetry, while Spenser speaks of him as "the well of English undefiled." There were many writers of verse in England in Chaucer's time, but none had sufficient breadth of view or charm of style to become such a national literary figure as Chaucer was.
The poet was born and brought up in London, where his father was a wine merchant. That his father was a man of standing is shown by the fact that he and his wife were in attendance upon Edward III and his queen when they went to Flanders in 1338. It was most likely due to his father's connection at court that Chaucer was made a member of the household of Prince Lionel, in which he probably served as a page. From this time on to the end of his life Chaucer was, with some interruptions, connected with the court. It is known that he went at the king's command on no less than seven diplomatic missions to the Continent. He was also appointed collector of wool customs for the port of London, and many more marks of royal favor were bestowed upon him. His wide acquaintance with men and affairs was increased by his service as a soldier in France, his travels in Italy, and his experience while serving as member of Parliament for Kent.
In spite, however, of all his duties as politician, officeholder, diplomat, and courtier, and in spite of his love of "good compainye," he spent many of his nights in poring over his books,
until his eyes were "dased," and until his head ached from the making of "books, songs, and ditties." He was a wide, but perhaps a desultory, reader, and his pen was ready and fruitful. His best known longer poems are The Boke of the Duchesse, Troylus and Criseyde, The Parlement of Foules, The Hous of Fame, The Legende of Goode Women, and, greatest of all, The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer's most prominent traits are his humor, his shrewdness, his gentle satire, his wide sympathy with life on all its sides, and his very unusual gifts as a story-teller. He was a successful man of affairs, an affable man of the world, and a poet of unsurpassed power in his own field. "If character may be divined by works," says Lowell," he was a good man, genial, sincere, hearty, temperate of mind, more wise, perhaps, for this world than the next, but thoroughly human, and friendly with God and man."
THE PROLOGUE TO THE CANTERBURY TALES
A KNIGHT ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tymé that he first bigan
At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftené,
In listés thryés, and ay slayn his foo.
And everemore he hadde a sovereyn prys.
He nevere yet no vileinye ne saydé
In al his lyf, un-to no maner wight.
He was a verray parfit gentil knight.
His hors were goodé, but he was nat gay.
Al bismotered with his habergeoun.
For he was late y-come from his viagé,
With him ther was his sone, a yong SQUYÉR,
A lovyer, and a lusty bacheler,
With lokkés crulle, as they were leyd in pressé.
And wonderly delivere, and greet of strengthé.
Wel coude he sitte on hors, and fairé rydé.
He coudé songés make, and wel endyté,
Iuste and eek daunce, and wel purtreye and wryté.
So hote he lovede, that by nightertalé
He sleep namore than doth a nightingalé.
A shipman was ther, woning fer by westé:
The hoté somer had maad his hewe all broun;
And, certeinly, he was a good felawé.
Ful many a draughte of wyn had he y-drawé
From Burdeux-ward, whyl that the chapman sleep. 10
If that he faught, and hadde the hyer hond,
With many a tempest hadde his berd been shaké.
A good man was ther of religion,
But riche he was of holy thought and werk.
And swich he was y-preved ofté sythés.
Ful looth were him to cursen for his tythés,
But rather wolde he yeven, out of douté,
Of his offring, and eek of his substauncé.
Wyd was his parisshe, and houses fer a-sonder,
In siknes nor in meschief to visyté
The ferreste in his parisshe, moche and lyté,
This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf,
That first he wroghte, and afterward he taughté;
And this figure he added eek ther-to
That if gold rusté, what shal yren do?
For if a preest be foul, on whom we trusté,
No wonder is a lewéd man to rusté;
A (spotted) shepherde and a clené sheep.
By his clennesse, how that his sheep shold livé.
He setté nat his benefice to hyré,
And leet his sheep encombred in the myré,