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Laughe and pleye so womanly,
Meanwhile the exact date is not known Chaucer had married a lady whose first name was Philippa. This lady is supposed to have been Philippa Roch, a sister of the third wife of John of Gaunt.
First Visit to Italy, 1372. — The King and his advisers appear to have found Chaucer a trustworthy and competent agent, for in 1372 he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Italy. He was abroad nearly a year, visiting Florence and Genoa, and possibly meeting the Italian poet Petrarch, who was staying near Padua at the time. This journey to Italy, and a subsequent visit to Lombardy (1378–79), had a profound effect upon the development of Chaucer's genius. He passed from his northern island into that wonderful land of the south, once the mistress of the civilized world; from the land of mailed knights, to the land of the artist and the scholar; from the old world of the trouvère, to the new world of Petrarch and Boccaccio. In the midst of the fragments of an old civilization, there were already signs of the awakening of a new art and culture. The devotion to beauty, characteristic of the coming era, showed itself in wonders of architecture, in paintings and frescoes; a new literature, inspired by enthusiasm for the masterpieces of antiquity, had already declared itself. Chaucer was the first great poet of England to feel that spell which Italy has exercised over so many English writers from Shakespeare to Browning. His work testifies to the profound impression made upon him by his Italian journeys. In his literary apprenticeship he is the imitator and trans
lator of the French poets; then, brought close to another descendant of the same Latin civilization, he draws a fresh inspiration from Italy.
Return to England. - After his return to England from this memorable first visit to Italy (1373), Chaucer received various marks of the Royal favor. He was made Comptroller of the Customs on Wool and Hides for the Port of London, granted a pension by John of Gaunt, and sent from time to time on missions to France and elsewhere. In 1382 he became Comptroller of the Petty Customs at London, and in 1386 he was returned to Parliament as one of the Knights of the Shire for Kent. About this time (1385-88), Chaucer may have actually gone upon a pilgrimage to Canterbury, and found in his experience a hint for the setting of his Canterbury Tales.
Troilus and Cressida. - But Chaucer, like Shakespeare, possessed the rare power of keeping the ideal and the practical side of life in an even balance, and during these active and prosperous years study and poetry were not neglected. Shut in his house at Aldgate he lived in a world of imagination and reminis
“There," writes M. Jusserand, "all he had known in Italy would return to his memory, campaniles, azure frescoes, olive groves, sonnets of Petrarch, poems of Dante, tales of Boccaccio; he had brought back wherewithal to move and enliven 'merry England' herself.” A number of poems bear the impress of his Italian studies. A long and important poem, Troilus and Cressida (about 1380–1383?), is based on Boccaccio's Filostrato, while the uncompleted House of Fame shows the influence of Dante. In his masterly version of the story of Troilus, the lover, and the beautiful but faithless Cressida, Chaucer is the precursor of the modern novelist. The chief characters are drawn with a subtle
understanding of men and women; and, though something of the lengthy tediousness of the old romance still remains, the story is told with a consummate delicacy and skill that make it worthy of a great master of English narrative verse.
Chaucer Becomes Poor, 1386. — But a change in Chaucer's fortunes was at hand. So far his success as a courtier had given him many opportunities which proved of advantage to him in his art. He had learned from prosperity, he was now to feel the discipline of another teacher. In 1386, the same year in which he had entered Parliament, he was suddenly reduced to comparative poverty. Edward III, who had done so much for Chaucer, had died some years before this; and, during the minority of Richard II, now one and now another of the young King's uncles gained the
Chaucer was among those who lost their government positions as a result of this political change. Among Chaucer's minor poems is a group of ballads in which he meditates upon the fickleness of Fortune, upon contentment in adversity, on the vanity of wealth without nobleness, and on kindred themes. It is highly probable that we have in these poems an indication of the spirit in which Chaucer met his misfortunes. The tone of these ballads is brave, sensible, and manly; they bring before us a man of sweet and kindly nature, sustained by religion, philosophy, and a sense of humor, who is able to take “ fortune's buffets and rewards with “equal thanks.' " "No man,” he says, “is wretched unless he chooses to think himself so,"
“And he that hath himself hath sufficiance."
The little poem the Ballad of Good Counseil, or Truth, seems to bring Chaucer very close to us:
"Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stal!
Know thy contree, look up, thank God of all;
The Canterbury Tales. — In these years of financial stress and “litel besinesse” Chaucer is supposed to have turned his leisure to good account and found “ rest” in composing the greater part of his Canterbury Tales
(1386-91?), the crowning work of his life. The Canterbury Tales consists of a number of separate stories supposed to be told by the various members of a company of pilgrims, journeying together to the tomb of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. In a general prologue we are told how these pilgrims met at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, the district opposite to London on the other side of the Thames; how they agreed to be fellow-travelers; how the jolly inn-keeper, Harry
Bailly,” proposed that each pilgrim should tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two returning. There are, by way of interlude, prologues to the several stories thus told, which bind the whole series more firmly together and recall to us the general design.
Chaucer's work is founded on a pilgrimage, one of the characteristic and familiar features of the life of the time. With rare tact he has selected one of the few occasions which brought together in temporary good-fellowship men and women of different classes and occupations. He is thus able to paint the moving life of the world about him in all its breadth and variety; he can give to stories told by such chance-assorted companions a dramatic character and contrast, making Knight, Priest, or Miller reveal himself in what he relates.
The chief interest of the Prologue lies in the freshness and truth with which each member of the little party of pilgrims is set before us. As one after another of that immortal procession passes by, the intervening' centuries are forgotten, and we ourselves seem fourteenth-century pilgrims riding with the rest. It is a morning in the middle of April as we with the jolly company, thirty-two in all, with our host of the Tabard, Harry Bailly, as governor,” pass out of the square courtyard of the inn and take the highroad toward Canterbury. The freshness of the spring is all about us; showers and sunshine and soft winds have made the budding world beautiful in tender green, and the joy of the sweet season in the hearts of innumerable birds makes them put their gladness into song. This time, when the sap mounts in the trees, and the world is new-charged with the love of life, fills us with restless desires and the spirit of adventure:
“Thanne longen folk to gon on pilgrimages."