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belongs to this group, although his superiority as a poet makes his prose comparatively unimportant. One of the most famous prose works of the century was The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a translation from the French. This entertaining book purported to be an account of a journey to the Holy Land, but in reality is a medley, partly compiled from popular legends and travelers' stories, and partly pure invention.
William Langland (about 1332–about 1400), though coming originally, it is believed, from the border of Wales, belongs with the group of writers who helped to make London the literary center. In his great work, The Vision of Piers the Plowman, we seem to hear the well-nigh hopeless cry of the people against a corrupt church and the social evils of the time. The poet falls asleep and sees in his vision the world as a "fair field full of folk." There are plowmen, the fruit of whose toil the gluttons waste, men rich in apparel, chafferers, lawyers, who will not open their mouths except for gold, pardoners from Rome, who traffic with the people for pardons, and divide with the parish priest the silver of
The world makes a pilgrimage to seek Truth, and finds a guide in Piers, a plowman, at work in the fields. He bids them wait until he has finished his half-acre, then he will lead them. By Truth, Langland appears to have meant a heavenly wisdom which should teach men how to live rightly, and it becomes plain as the poem proceeds that the way to truth is through humility, unfeigned goodness, and honest labor.
So far, in our general survey of the literature of the fourteenth century, we have considered some of its local manifestations in poetry, and the revival of Eng
We must now consider the most representative poet of the period.
(ABOUT 1340 TO 1400)
“The pupil of manifold experience, — scholar, courtier, soldier, ambassador,
who had known poverty a housemate, and been the companion of princes, he was one of those happy temperaments that could equally enjoy both halves of culture, the world of books and the world of men.” — LOWELL, Essay on Chaucer.
“His, to paint
F. T. PALGRAVE, Visions of England.
Chaucer is the first-born of the greater poets of England; the predecessor of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and the rest of the royal line of the English rulers of song. He was not indeed, as some of his earlier disciples ignorantly thought him, “ the Father of English Poetry," for England, as we have seen, had produced a long succession of poets before his time; but he was the first great poet who wrote in an English which presents but little difficulty to the modern reader; he was "the finder of our fair language." Chaucer marks the point of departure from old precedents and traditions. If he is not "the Father of English Poetry," he is the founder of a new dynasty, the first exemplar in England of a poetry that in form and spirit was, in a large measure, neither Anglo-Saxon nor Celtic, but foreign. This departure on Chaucer's part from the older poetry was not a deliberate rejection of it, but a natural result of the poet's education and of all the varied experiences which combined to mold his genius and direct its course.
Life. - Chaucer was both a poet and a practical and sagacious man of affairs, both a student and a courtier, a dreamer and a man of the world. In studying his life we must endeavor to view it from this double aspect; to remember that he was the “pupil of manifold experience,” and that, while he lived and learned in the world of courts and camps, he withdrew at times into that other world of thought and imagination.
Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London in or about 1340. His father, John Chaucer, a prosperous winemerchant on Thames Street, was purveyor to Edward III, and had attended the King and Queen in an expedition to Flanders and Cologne (1338). The name Chaucer, which seems to be derived from the French, suggests that the poet was sprung from Norman stock. These few facts are significant. The poet, who was to leave behind him such lively and brightly colored pictures of medieval life, dress, and manners, was born in the nation's capital, the focus of England's political, social, and commercial life. The narrow, crooked streets of the old town were a wonderful school for the painter of contemporary life, but the dweller in the London of the Plantagenets was not wholly cut off from the influence of very different surroundings. Chaucer was to be the lover of Nature as well as the poet of man; in medieval London the sky was not yet obscured by soot and smoke, and the open fields and the hedgerows were not very far away. Poet of Nature and of man, Chaucer was also to be the poet of the upper classes and the court, and the conditions of his life led him naturally to this likewise.
Page to Countess of Ulster. When Chaucer was about seventeen, he was made page to Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, the daughter-in-law of Edward III, and
this early introduction to the court atmosphere is a crucial point in his career. While the native English spirit was beginning to assert itself throughout the country, the tone of the court at this time was still foreign. French literature was in fashion: “French poets and 'menestrels' were in the service and pay of the English King.” Queen Philippa and her ladies amused themselves with French poetry and romance. It was a brilliant, comfortable world too, adorned with a splendid ceremonial, stirred by the echo of chivalric deeds, for the King had just won the battle of Poitiers (1356). At an age when life is very new and wonderful to an eager and susceptible youth, the boy-poet Chaucer was transported to the midst of this foreign atmosphere, this little world of fair ladies and great lords, of French singers and French tastes. Outside in the country was the greater world of England, a plague-stricken and miserable land where the people toiled and hungered, enduring “ wind and rain in the fields.” But circumstances had shut the young Chaucer away from this world of the poor; his training was that of a gentleman's son; his world, the world of chivalry.
Chaucer the Student. — Besides this courtly training and worldly experience, Chaucer gained in some way a knowledge of books. He learned Latin, and he was probably familiar with French from his earliest years. Like Shakespeare he was a lover not only of men but of books; and, possessing the industry and enthusiasm of the student, he was doubtless his own best teacher. His poems are almost always founded upon books; many of them are translations or paraphrases of other men's work, and he is fond of introducing reminiscences of his reading. More than one passage reveals his delight in study, and shows us that in the midst of a