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14
Chaucer

Derby (afterwards Henry IV.), Sir Thomas de Swynford and other distinguished persons. In August 1386 he was elected one of the two knights of the shire for Kent, and with this dignity, though it was one not much appreciated in those days, his good fortune reached its climax. In December of the same year he was superseded in both his comptrollerships, almost certainly as a result of the absence of his patron, John of Gaunt, in Spain, and the supremacy of the duke of Gloucester. In the following year the cessation of Philippa’s pension suggests that she died between Midsummer and Michaelmas. In May 1388 Chaucer surrendered to the king his two pensions of 20 marks each, and they were re-granted at his request to one John Scalby. The transaction was unusual and probably points to a pressing need for ready money, nor for the next fourteen months do we know of any source of income possessed by Chaucer beyond his annuity of £10 from John of Gaunt.

In July 1389, after John of Gaunt had returned to England, and the king had taken the government into his own hands, Chaucer was appointed clerk of the works at various royal palaces at a salary of two shillings a day, or over £31 a year, worth upwards of £500 present value. To this post was subsequently added the charge of some repairs at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. He was also made a commissioner to maintain the banks of the Thames between Woolwich and Greenwich, and was given by the earl of March (grandson of Lionel, duke of Clarence, his old patron) a sub-forestership at North Petherton, Devon, obviously a sinecure. While on the king’s business, in September 1390, Chaucer was twice robbed by highwaymen, losing £20 of the king’s money. In June 1391 he was superseded in his office of clerk of the works, and seems to have suffered another spell of misfortune, of which the first alleviation came in January 1393 when the king made him a present of £10. In February 1394 he was granted a new pension of £20. It is possible, also, that about this time, or a little later, he was in the service of the earl of Derby. In 1397 he received from King Richard a grant of a butt of wine yearly. For this he appears to have asked in terms that suggest poverty, and in May 1398 he obtained letters of protection against his creditors, a step perhaps rendered necessary by an action for debt taken against him earlier in the year. On the accession of Henry IV. a new pension of 40 marks was conferred on Chaucer (13th of October 1399) and Richard II.’s grants were formally confirmed. Henry himself, however, was probably straitened for ready money, and no instalment of the new pension was paid during the few months of his reign that the poet lived. Nevertheless, on the strength of his expectations, on the 24th of December 1399 he leased a tenement in the garden of St Mary’s Chapel, Westminster, and it was probably here that he died, on the 25th of the following October. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and his tomb became the nucleus of what is now known as Poets’ Corner.

The portrait of Chaucer, which the affection of his disciple, Thomas Hoccleve, caused to be painted in a copy of the latter’s Regement of Princes (now Harleian MS. 4866 in the British Museum), shows him an old man with white hair; he has a fresh complexion, grey eyes, a straight nose, a grey moustache and a small double-pointed beard. His dress and hood are black, and he carries in his hands a string of beads. We may imagine that it was thus that during the last months of his life he used to walk about the precincts of the Abbey.

Henry IV.’s promise of an additional pension was doubtless elicited by the Compleynt to his Purs, in the envoy to which Chaucer addresses him as the “conquerour of Brutes Works. Albioun.” Thus within the last year of his life the poet was still writing. Nevertheless, as early as 1393–1394, in lines to his friend Scogan, he had written as if his day for poetry were past, and it seems probable that his longer poems were all composed before this date. In the preceding fifteen—or, if another view be taken, twenty—years, his literary activity was very great, and with the aid of the lists of his works which he gives in the Legende of Good Women (lines 414–431), and the talk on the road which precedes the “Man of Law’s Tale” (Canterbury Tales, B. 46-76), the order in which his main works were written can be traced with approximate certainty,[1] while a few both of these and of the minor poems can be connected with definite dates.

The development of his genius has been attractively summed up as comprised in three stages, French, Italian and English, and there is a rough approximation to the truth in this formula, since his earliest poems are translated from the French or based on French models, and the two great works of his middle period are borrowed from the Italian, while his latest stories have no such obvious and direct originals and in their humour and freedom anticipate the typically English temper of Henry Fielding. But Chaucer’s indebtedness to French poetry was no passing phase. For various reasons—a not very remote French origin of his own family may be one of them—he was in no way interested in older English literature or in the work of his English contemporaries, save possibly that of “the moral Gower.” On the other hand he knew the Roman de la rose as modern English poets know Shakespeare, and the full extent of his debt to his French contemporaries, not merely in 1369, but in 1385 and in 1393 (the dates are approximate), is only gradually being discovered. To be in touch throughout his life with the best French poets of the day was much for Chaucer. Even with their stimulus alone he might have developed no small part of his genius. But it was his great good fortune to add to this continuing French influence, lessons in plot and construction derived from Boccaccio’s Filostrato and Teseide, as well as some glimpses of the higher art of the Divina Commedia. He shows acquaintance also with one of Petrarch’s sonnets, and though, when all is said, the Italian books with which he can be proved to have been intimate are but few, they sufficed. His study of them was but an episode in his literary life, but it was an episode of unique importance. Before it began he had already been making his own artistic experiments, and it is noteworthy that while he learnt so much from Boccaccio he improved on his originals as he translated them. Doubtless his busy life in the service of the crown had taught him self-confidence, and he uses his Italian models in his own way and with the most triumphant and assured success. When he had no more Italian poems to adapt he had learnt his lesson. The art of weaving a plot out of his own imagination was never his, but he could take what might be little more than an anecdote and lend it body and life and colour with a skill which has never been surpassed.

The most direct example of Chaucer’s French studies is his translation of Le Roman de la rose, a poem written in some 4000 lines by Guillaume Lorris about 1237 and extended to over 22,000 by Jean Clopinel, better known as Jean de Meun, forty years later. We know from Chaucer himself that he translated this poem, and the extant English fragment of 7698 lines was generally assigned to him from 1532, when it was first printed, till its authorship was challenged in the early years of the Chaucer Society. The ground of this challenge was its wide divergence from Chaucer’s practice in his undoubtedly genuine works as to certain niceties of rhyme, notable as to not rhyming words ending in -y with others ending -ye. It was subsequently discovered, however, that the whole fragment was divisible linguistically into three portions, of which the first and second end respectively at lines 1705 and 5810, and that in the first of these three sections the variations from Chaucer’s accepted practice are insignificant. Lines 1-1705 have therefore been provisionally accepted as Chaucer’s, and the other two fragments as the work of unknown translators (James I. of Scotland has been suggested as one of them), which somehow came to be pieced together. If, however, the difficulties in the way of this theory are less than those which confront any other, they are still considerable, and the question can hardly be treated as closed.

While our knowledge of Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose is in this unsatisfactory state, another translation of his from the French, the Book of the Lyon (alluded to in the “Retraction” found, in some manuscripts, at the end of the Canterbury Tales), which must certainly have been taken from Guillaume

  1. The positions of the House of Fame and Palamon and Arcyte are still matters of controversy.